Lena Dunham, Photoshop, and "Feminist" Clickbait

Cristen Conger

Courtesy Salon

This week, feminist site Jezebel jumped the shark -- at least that's what it felt like to me, a long-time Jezebel reader who's grown increasingly disheartened by its movement away from gender-wise political and pop cultural analysis toward wholesale feminist-ish clickbait. On Thursday, it splashed across its site a $10,000 offer for unedited photos of HBO "Girls" creator and star Lena Dunham from her February Vogue cover shoot. And soon as I saw the massive, Daily Mail-esque headline, I cringed.

See, way back when in 2007, Jezebel first helped blow the lid off how women's magazines routinely Photoshop celebrities and models down to "flawless" and sometimes unrecognizable versions of themselves with a similar offer for un-retouched pics of a Faith Hill Redbook cover. Alas, we had proof of that in LadyMag Land, it's virtually impossible for anyone -- even Faith Hill! -- to be beautiful enough to meet up to the idealized standards. But nearly seven years later, with girls young and old now well aware of the ubiquity of Photoshop, the gimmicky offer for Dunham's Vogue photos merely smacked of clickbaiting at the expense of Lena Dunham's body. We already know the moral of the story well: Vogue Photoshops women, and what you see in its pages aren't what you get in reality.

That a purportedly feminist, anti-fat shaming, body politics strident (typically in a good way) site like Jezebel would stoop to such a level unsurprisingly outraged a lot of women. Dunham herself even weighed in on Twitter:

@emilynussbaum 10k? Give it to charity then just order HBO. - Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) January 17, 2014

Anyone who looks at Dunham's (gorgeous) photo spread can see that some Photoshopping had happened, but nothing looked especially out of the ordinary. Dunham looked like Dunham, and the unedited photos Jez plunked down the $10K for affirmed exactly that: some retouching, but not a horrendous amount. Many people weighing in on Voguegate2014 on Twitter made jokes, in fact, about how if they were on the cover of Vogue they'd want some Photoshop touch-ups as well -- and why not? Personally, the amount of unfiltered Instagram selfies I've posted round up to a whopping zero, but then again, this whole kerfuffle isn't so much about self-editing than it is about the beauty catch-22 feminist-minded women often find themselves in these days wherein we're simultaneously expected physically to meet ladymag standards of loveliness and mentally to eschew them.

Disappointingly, Jezebel has had nothing substantive to say on the matter (and meanwhile isn't throwing cash at uncovering an apparent and more troubling Vanity Fair edit of the color of Lupita Nyong'o's skin), but that certainly hasn't stopped other women from picking up where the site very lazily left off with plenty of astute, worthwhile commentary that has me thinking a lot about clickbait, digital feminism and celebrity/beauty culture:

"Jezebel's Lena Dunham mistake: Why offering money for her photo is disengenuous" by Roxane Gay. Salon.

If I were ever to grace the pages of Vogue, I would want my image retouched because the audience is so vast. There is great vulnerability in being exposed to that many judging eyes. I feel no small amount of guilt over this willingness to surrender my ideals. It contradicts so much of what I believe in about body positivity and aggressively challenging unrealistic beauty standards. Maybe I've been too socially conditioned. Maybe I'm too old. Maybe I'm too vain. But I can own it. If I am ever in the spotlight, I want to look good. I want to think, "I woke up like this." I suspect the same holds true for Lena Dunham.

"What Can We Learn From Lena Dunham's Unretouched Vogue Photos?" by Kat Stoeffel. NYMag.

Inside, Dunham's cleavage was covered up, a leg was lengthened, and - the big reveal - she was shown not wearing that pigeon fascinator. Coen acknowledged the anti-climax: "While Dunham has not been radically Photoshopped, it's clearer than ever what kind of woman Vogue finds Vogue-worthy: The taller, longer-limbed, svelter version of reality." Which only left us with the same question we'd had when they first announced the bounty: What had Jezebel intended to accomplish?

"The Conversations I Wish We Were Having About Lena Dunham, Vogue, and Jezebel" by Michelle Dean. Flavorwire.

As a person frequently enlisted to write about Dunham or Mindy Kaling or Melissa McCarthy, I am quite frustrated by the fact that discussions about their photoshopping will be conducted at a higher volume than others would be. No one is that interested in seeing pre-photoshopped pictures of Karlie Kloss, or even Cate Blanchett. And I suspect that's because they don't hold out quite the promise of revealing a person much fatter or uglier than pictured. And that's why I feel simultaneously encouraged by the presence of Dunham et al. in the culture and depressed by the way their talents, whatever they are, get totally ignored in these debates about what they look like.

Recommended SMNTY Listening: "A Lovely Conversation on Beauty & Feminism"